A multi-party debate hosted by St. Paul’s Episcopal School nurtured lively differences in opinion between the Republicans and Democrats on the stage, although the format – a policy question followed by a 60-second answer period from each of the 10 candidates on stage — grew robotic at times. But contrary to the frequent atmosphere in Washington, all candidates were able to agree on at least a couple of issues and even in disagreement, they remained cordial.
For example, Democratic candidate Lula Albert-Kaigler drew applause and a smattering of laughter when she said she had a “beautiful” gun the government could never take away from her, although she couldn’t immediately identify the model and said she would never shoot it. Responding to a question about school shootings, both Kaigler and Democrat Burton LeFlore indicated there was a bigger problem with mental health than gun control in the country, a day after another mass shooting took the lives of at least 12 people in Washington, D.C.
The seven Republican candidates present and Independent James Hall agreed, all emphasizing that school security and gun rights should be regulated by state and local government. Republican Wells Griffith said the federal government could help with funding for armed guards. The only two candidates absent from the debate were Republicans Chad Fincher and Dean Young.
The 502-seat Dr. Monte L. Moorer Theater at St. Paul’s was about three-fifths full and perhaps half of the audience was high school students. Restroom chatter suggested at least some were attending to receive extra credit. The debate was moderated by Alex Pappas, a St. Paul alumnus who is currently a reporter for national political and news aggregation website the Daily Caller. Questions were written by St. Paul’s seniors and provided to the candidates in advance of the debate.
They included the more predicable questions of what do about the national debt or which congressional committees the candidates would like to serve on to more narrow subjects like what constitutes overreach of government surveillance or whether the U.S. should boycott the 2014 winter Olympics to protest Russia’s sheltering of Edward Snowden.
Regarding committees, most candidates had their eyes on the nation’s purse strings with the ways and means or appropriations committees, although Quin Hillyer was the only candidate who admitted it would be incredibly unlikely for any freshman congressman to serve on either. Still, he said based on his previous experience as a media staffer on the appropriations committee, he would have a greater chance than anyone else on the stage.
Hall was interested in veterans affairs, LeFlore said he would aim for the agricultural committee, Jessica James wanted to serve on the education committee to abolish the Department of Education and Bradley Byrne ticked off a list of local issues, implying he would serve on any committee that could help the district.
Healthcare was a divisive topic, with Albert-Kaigler, LeFlore and David “Thunder” Thornton going against the grain by not pledging to repeal or replace all aspects of the Affordable Care Act. Thornton and Byrne were the only Republicans to refer to the law by its proper name, rather than the “Obamacare” moniker used by most of its detractors. Yet Byrne was lock-step with his party when suggesting the law should be repealed and healthcare should be deregulated, where the free market could drive prices down and allow even the poor to receive comprehensive care. Thornton said “some aspects” of the ACA should remain in place, but didn’t elaborate.
Edward Snowden is somewhere in between a traitor or a hero, according to the candidates, but either way, the United States should not block its athletes from participating in the 2014 Olympics. LeFlore said Olympians shouldn’t be punished because someone “told the truth” and Albert-Kaigler said the government should “lighten up,” over Snowden’s alleged crimes while Byrne, Wells Griffith and Hillyer said he should be captured and brought to justice. Hall was on the fence, but said the situation reflected worse upon the nation’s intelligence gathering effort and was “a perfect example of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Regarding drug testing of welfare recipients, Albert-Kaigler was the only candidate to completely oppose it, saying it amounted to “more control by the government.” Hillyer cautioned that it needed to be done sensibly and not violate civil rights and LeFlore said he would support it, but could not imagine how a drug-testing program could be efficiently administered.
The special primary election is next Tuesday, Sept. 24. As an independent, Hall will be the only candidate not on Tuesday’s ballot, but constituents will have an opportunity to vote for in him the general election Nov. 5, if there is not a run-off, or Dec. 17 if there is.